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Shelf Life
February 2009

If you ask anyone, particularly on the Left, for his idea of a dead-end job, the chances are that he will reply "stacking supermarket shelves."

This occupation, indeed, has become a trope for the futility of existence at the lower end of the social spectrum. Not long ago, for example, a columnist in the Guardian (charity prevents me from naming names) wrote that it was scarcely any wonder that teenage girls had babies when the only alternative open to them was stacking supermarket shelves. As far as she was concerned, having a baby could prevent a fate worse than Siberia.

But if supermarkets are necessary, then so are supermarket shelves - they have to be stacked by someone.

There is nothing dishonourable or dishonest about stacking shelves. On the contrary, it is a socially useful thing to do. Moreover, the variation of abilities to be found in any human population suggests that this is the kind of work that suits some people quite admirably.

However, I do not want to stress this last point for fear that I should be thought to be impugning the intelligence of those who work in supermarkets. And this would be precisely the opposite of my intentions. I have always found people who work in supermarkets - whether in Tesco, Sainsbury, Waitrose, Morrisons or any other - not only competent but eager to please. Whenever I approach them to ask where I may find coriander or brass polish, they drop what they are doing and take me straight there.

The checkout staff are always pleasant too. Their job is far from uninteresting, contrary to what unimaginative intellectuals might suppose. Surely people's purchases, infinitely various in their combination, must tell you a lot about them. I don't think I would mind working on a supermarket checkout, at least for a few months.

In my experience, this snobbish condescension expressed by intellectuals for supermarket shelf-stackers often infuriates people much more than large injustices. Therefore, if you want to improve society, don't take for granted the small services rendered you by others. Don't just say thank you, but actually be thankful for them.

February 11th, 2009
10:02 PM
A few years ago a New York bin man died his obit was in the Telegraph. During the war he kept a diary of his time in the US Navy, someone suggested he publish it, it made the best seller list and made $3 million. He gave all the money to charity. He was made New Yorker of the year in the '60s. He never married, made his living as a bin man, which he described as "an honourable profession". I can think of several less honourable.

February 5th, 2009
2:02 PM
Next time you're sold a chicken tikka from Asda or a burger from McDonald's compare the usefulness of that simple service to the buying and selling of mortgage-backed securities - the latter has indebted our nation for the next twenty years. Consider also the behaviour of the large supermarket chains as employers. I do not recall the last time one of these moored a barge off the coast, the better to bring in hundreds of foreigners to stack the shelves or man the tills.

Hank Archer
February 4th, 2009
4:02 PM
In America the job everyone looks down on is "burger flipping" working in a fast food restaurant. But, as Dr. Daniels says "There is nothing dishonourable or dishonest about stacking shelves. On the contrary, it is a socially useful thing to do." There a many useful things a young person learns in such a job -- being on time, following directions, being neat and presentable, etc. Many have gotten their starts in work life in these types of jobs.

January 30th, 2009
12:01 PM
Dear Dr Daniels; Please PLEASE do work on a supermarket checkout for a few months! I guarantee it would give you much excellent material for the 'Dalrymple' columns that only you can write. May I suggest that the most interesting shops to work in from that point of view are the small convenience stores (booze & crisp & microwave meal) shops near large areas of deprived housing. Truly an experience!

January 30th, 2009
12:01 PM
Wonderful piece. As one of the many students who worked part-time for various supermarkets, I learned so much. All of humanity passes through the checkout; the hurried businessman, the guilty underage teenager buying contraband, the lonely old lady just wanting a chat, delightful old man with the bloodshot face visiting for his daily 1/4 bottle of cheap brandy. Shelf stacking is also a hard and subtle discipline. Needless to say a neatly stocked aisle will sell more than an untidy one. Then you have the adventures; Chasing a thief out of the door onto the North Hull estate and reposessing a pack of cheap yoghurts and having to listen to his angry protestation: "Grayyt...nah the 'bairns wurrnt 'ave ne pudding' And the frisson of spotting shoplifters by the smell: A peculiar mixture of sweat, urine, and alcohol. And the opportunity to mix and work with adults from other generations. Yes, much to be gained from working for a supermarket, even if you don't need the money.

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